This is the first in a series of stories about the ramifications of Senate budget cuts to the NC Department of Environmental Quality.
When Michael Regan, the affable secretary of the NC Department of Environmental Quality, faced Senate confirmation in March, he encountered neither rancor nor opposition from conservative lawmakers known for their agnostic, if sometimes hostile views of the natural world.
Instead, they lobbed a series of softball questions at him, which he easily hit. His confirmation was unanimous, with atta-boys all around.
Something doesn’t feel right, skeptics thought at the time.
This was too easy.
Now people know why they felt uneasy: The Senate budget implements massive job and program cuts, totallng a 10 percent decrease in state appropriations to DEQ.
The contradictions inherent in these cuts are many. The Senate is placing additional, and given the circumstances, unreasonable demands on the department. It’s almost as if lawmakers don’t have a holistic view of what DEQ is obliged to do.
As NCPW reported last week shortly after the Senate released its budget, dozens of positions, from the lowest rungs of the organizational ladder to the highest — including DEQ Deputy Chief John Nicholson, a retired Marine colonel — would be eliminated.
(The previous chief deputy under Donald van der Vaart, Tom Reeder, now works as Sen. Phil Berger’s science advisor; van der Vaart is still employed at DEQ, having demoted himself to position in air quality, a position which protects him from being fired because it is not a political appointment.)
The full accounting comes to 56 positions gone, which by any reckoning, does not qualify as job creation. Compare this figure with Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposal to add 48 jobs through 2019. He recommended a 3 percent budget increase; the Senate is proposing a 10 percent decrease in state appropriations. With federal funding and grants — not a given in the Trump administration — the net is a 3 percent decrease, which in real dollars qualifies as a gutting.
As for programs, take for example, permitting. Cooper’s budget adds a half-dozen or more permitting positions because DEQ, already the victim of deep personnel and funding cuts over the past six years, has been lagging in processing permits. Sometimes it can take two years, delaying corporate projects and the important financing for them.
Yet in the budget policy document, the Senate is demanding that DEQ track the time it takes for permits to be issued (or denied). Then the department must issue an annual report to a legislative committee on its progress. OK, but given that the Senate just hollowed out the department budget, it’s unlikely the wait times will get shorter. Which will then give lawmakers ammunition to kvetch about how inefficient DEQ is.
According to former DEQ Assistant Secretary Robin Smith, who blogs at Smith Environment, there has been a 41 percent decrease in water quality/resources staff in the regional offices since 2011. And yet, the Senate budget cuts two more jobs from each of the seven outposts.
And the 24-year Environmental Education program — which tackles such controversial topics as bird identification workshops, butterfly walks, “Ancient Mountains of the Triad” hikes and knot tying — is eliminated. Why Environmental Education? What has EE ever done to lawmakers?
From the EE website: “The office serves as a liaison to the Department of Public Instruction to ensure that environmental and related science content is integrated into the Common Core State and N.C. Essential Standards that teaches kids about nature and science.
Surely, science is not to blame.
Also zeroed out, the Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service. It’s odd the Senate would target this division, considering the previous two secretaries under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory — John Skvarla and Donald van der Vaart — emphasized that the department would be “customer-service based.”
This division helps businesses navigate the permitting process — the very process that the DEQ will be held accountable for when it submits is tracking report next year.
DEACS, as it’s known, also trains businesses to be more energy efficient, reduce waste and increase their recycling. When businesses can achieve these reductions, they save money — in disposal fees, energy bills.
But the failure to reduce waste has serious implications down the line — at the landfill. This played out in real life last week. On Wednesday, DEQ recommended that the Environmental Management Commission issue a major variance for the Neuse River Riparian Area Protection rule — for the Johnston County landfill in Smithfield.
The landfill was permitted years ago, before these riparian rules went into effect. To accommodate the amount of the incoming trash, the Johnston County landfill has to expand. Without an expansion, Johnston County says the landfill will lose two-thirds of its capacity. And because of other complicating topographic factors, Johnston County says the landfill can only expand one way, which will encroach on 39,000 square feet of vital riparian buffers near streams in the Neuse River watershed.
Now Johnston County has to spend money on 75,000 buffer mitigation credits and install other expensive stormwater infrastructure to minimize its impact on the watershed.
If only we could fund a division to encourage businesses reduce waste. Oh, that’s right, we had one.
Tomorrow: Pulling the plug on clean energy.